Ben Morone’s childhood lemonade stand wasn’t built on a great business model. After all, there are only so many customers between Billings and Acton.
As the Billings Central Catholic High senior’s business acumen has grown — he operates multiple LLCs — he’s also realized raking in profits isn’t everything.
“In business, you need to know where you stand, you know, moral compass,” he said.
Morone plans to attend the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota after graduating to study business and philosophy, building on lessons he’s learned running businesses from an online retail outlet to the “Shasta Shack.”
Early in high school, Morone felt the pinch of buying snacks from the Holiday gas station near Central.
“It adds up and it adds up,” he said.
He and longtime friend Michael Horrell, also now a senior at Central, reckoned that other students would feel the same way. They started stocking up on cheap soda — Shasta was their brand of choice — from discount stores.
“Once we had thought about it, it was something that we had to do,” Horrell said.
The duo later expanded into things like fruit snacks, brownies and drink mixes.
Soon, the scene at their lockers looked “kind of alarming,” Morone said.
“We don’t have to worry about as much actually 'adulting' as you might have to, but you actually get to learn the adult skills,” Horrell said.
It wasn’t Morone’s only foray into business. He’s set up his own LLCs, including one for a lawn care business he started with a friend at Skyview High, getting in on steady contracts with realty companies. His online outlet operates using a method called drop shipping — forwarding customer order directly to manufacturers, so his outlet doesn’t have to actually stock products.
Karl Rude helped to teach him how.
Rude, who runs a Billings-based health care company, was introduced to Morone and Horrell by his wife, a teacher at Central.
“She recognized the skill that the guys had and wanted to see them get the coaching so they could have a good business model,” he said.
He started meeting with Morone and Horrell during their sophomore year. As the relationship grew, the education started working both ways.
“It was fascinatingly interesting, to see them bring tech and new ways of bringing customers, and me teach them basically business 101,” Rude said. “At some point I’m bringing some of this stuff back to my company.”
Morone’s not particularly attached to any one kind of business. Instead, he looks at the nature of his work. Morone wants a job that offers him flexibility in his personal time, and he expects a changing economy won’t lend itself to traditional, stable hours.
Morone has already learned some hard lessons about that lack of structure. During his junior year, his obligations piled up. He was playing soccer, was taking advanced courses, and was a leader in the school orchestra.
On an iPad, he managed his math notes alongside Facebook ads for his businesses.
“Not a lot of sleep (that year), I’ll be honest,” he said. “Different aspects of my life were just kind of dead.”
Horrell, his Shasta Shack partner, noticed.
“He was doing a lot of work last year, and junior year is a tough year in high school for sure,” he said.
Both students agree becoming more disciplined has helped Morone manage his time better without setting aside his interests. But Morone also had to shift his mindset to make sure that in his pursuit of his businesses interests, he wasn’t losing the personal flexibility he craved.
“I don’t know what else I would do with my life (other than business),” he said. “(But) I still have to enjoy today.”
Morone now rises at 4 a.m. and uses quiet mornings to read, often from philosophical texts.
“He’s been walking around with a bunch of these old books and stuff that were written in ancient Greece and Rome,” Horrell said. “I think I’ve noticed a difference in him as a person. … He can better judge what he’s going to say and have a good sense of how it’s going to impact other people.”
Rude recalled talking to the duo during their sophomore year about establishing a mission as a business.
“They were kind of like, 'yeah, yeah, mission,' but kids want to make money,” Rude said. That shifted later. Rude cited their reaction to possibly doing business with another company.
“They both kind of said no,” Rude said. "I said 'good, I'm glad you don’t want to do business with those people.'
“They wanted to be known for customer engagement in the right way. They recognize the human component. ... They knew what they were looking for.”
Like most things, I have a keen ability to see great newspaper ideas and think they are ridiculous.